Broadway musicals used to come strictly from the "burgs." Like long-legged chorus girls and buttery-voiced leading men, they had to pay their dues in cities like Providence or Philadelphia before slipping into the Belasco or the Winter Garden for the scrutiny of the New York critics.
But nowadays all the splashy Broadway shows seem to have sailed resplendently across the Atlantic from London's West End, with phalanxes of bejeweled dancers, a score by the British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Cats," "Evita," "Starlight Express") and an eight-digit budget.
"People keep asking, 'Where are the new American writers?' " said actor-composer Michael Rupert.
For Rupert, a slim, agile man who at 35 still sports a boyishly milky complexion, that's not just a rhetorical question. The answer, he would like to think, is that the "new American writers" have been in Pasadena for the past two months.
They would be, of course, Rupert himself, the winner of a Tony last year for his role in "Sweet Charity" and a graduate of San Marino High School, and his collaborator, actor-writer Jerry Colker.
After some solid successes on Broadway and off-Broadway, these two are gunning for the distinction of representing the next generation of American musical creators. Their brand-new musical, "Mail," which they have been stitching together since March in a former banquet room at the Huntington Sheraton hotel, has its world premiere June 14 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
"The musical is really part of the American domain," said Rupert last week between hurried bites of a chef's salad in the Huntington Sheraton's Tap Room. "I hope that in our own way, we're continuing the tradition, keeping it alive."
Rupert and Colker's first musical, "Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down" (the title refers to an old show-business expression for public embarrassment), played off-Broadway before coming to Pasadena for a one-week engagement at the playhouse in March. It was widely hailed as, at the least, nutty and promising.
"Even the critics who weren't crazy about everything in the show said they couldn't wait to see what we were going to do next," said Rupert, who turned his leisure-time habit of doodling on a piano into skill as a songwriter for that show.
"We make each other better," contends the Los Angeles-born Colker, who conceived of "Mail" as a one-man show, then blocked it out as a musical with Rupert's help. "That's the secret to our collaboration."
If all goes according to plan, "Mail" will reach a Broadway stage, and consecration as one of the major theatrical works of the season, in the next six to eight months.
"Nothing in this business is a certainty," acknowledged Susan Dietz, producing co-director of the Pasadena Playhouse, which she said is having a distinctly better season, both critically and financially, than it did last year, its first after a $4-million refurbishing. "The show is totally up to Broadway standards, but getting there is a gamble. It will depend on a lot of factors, not least of which is the financial situation in New York."
It was Dietz who brought "Mail" to the playhouse, which stands to earn a royalty and a piece of the profits should the show go to Broadway. Colker and Rupert brought their first script to her last year, and she helped them organize a "sing-through," a reading with singers and a piano player, at the Canon Theater in Los Angeles. She said she recognized it immediately as a worthwhile theatrical work.
Besides putting the finishing touches on an ambitious stage show, Rupert is on a pleasant nostalgia trip these days. The Colorado-born actor spent most of his adolescence in the San Gabriel Valley, and he made his professional acting debut as a 12-year-old at the Pasadena Playhouse.
'Back to My Youth'
"I used to come right here to the Huntington to go to dances," he said. "We had my best friend's wedding rehearsal party here. Every time I drive down Lake Avenue, it sends me back to my youth. Of course, the whole thing in high school was cruising around there in our cars."
The son of a printer, Rupert became fascinated with Broadway musicals through a pair of record albums and a musical grandmother. "I remember my parents brought home the albums to 'South Pacific' and 'Oklahoma,' and I played them over and over," he said. Rupert's parents, Charles and Peggy Rupert, both retired, still live in San Marino.
The grandmother was Pearl Rupert, his father's mother, the wife of a Colorado cattle rancher. "She had a mandolin and a guitar," said Rupert. "She and I would sit out on the porch swing together, singing songs. She instilled a real love of singing in me."
When the youngster heard that the playhouse offered acting and singing classes to children, he went to his parents for permission to attend. "They did a double take; then they let me do it," recalled Rupert.
No Passing Phase